Dopaminergic neurons (DAns), generated from human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs), are capable of functionally integrating following transplantation and have recently advanced to clinical trials for Parkinson's disease (PD). However, pre-clinical studies have highlighted the low proportion of DAns within hPSC-derived grafts and their inferior plasticity compared to fetal tissue. Here, we examined whether delivery of a developmentally critical protein, glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF), could improve graft outcomes. We tracked the response of DAns implanted into either a GDNF-rich environment or after a delay in exposure. Early GDNF promoted survival and plasticity of non-DAns, leading to enhanced motor recovery in PD rats. Delayed exposure to GDNF promoted functional recovery through increases in DAn specification, DAn plasticity, and DA metabolism. Transcriptional profiling revealed a role for mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK)-signaling downstream of GDNF. Collectively, these results demonstrate the potential of neurotrophic gene therapy strategies to improve hPSC graft outcomes.
- glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor
- graft integration
- human embryonic stem cells
- neural plasticity
- Parkinson’s disease